Dangerous food trends

It is quite astonishing to me how much attention some people pay to their diets, even if they have no medical condition that requires them to be careful about what they eat or drink. This feeling that certain diets can be the pathway to good health and longevity has been exploited by some to promote various fads that can, in fact, be dangerous. This article describes some popular fads that one should be very wary of.

This article warns that excessive fears about food, that come under the heading of ‘clean eating’, can lead to obsessive behavior and all manner of problems.

Rhiannon Lambert, a registered associate nutritionist in Harley Street, London, has encountered people who obsess over where food comes from and some clients who will not drink water from a tap, because they normally stick to a brand of bottled water.

“They develop particular habits, or won’t eat food when walking, because they think that food can only be processed when they’re sitting down,” she said. “All this interferes with general life and becomes an obsession.”

Lambert, who treats about 180 clients a year with various kinds of eating disorders, says has seen the number of those presenting due to “clean eating” double in the last year.

The extreme form of this is a psychological condition known as orthorexia nervosa, the Californian doctor Steven Bratman has said. Experts have described it as a “fixation with righteous eating”.

Ursula Philpot, a dietitian at the British Dietetic Association, said a fixation with eating healthily had been a noticeable route into eating disorders for vulnerable individuals in the past couple of years.

The condition starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthily, but those who experience it become fixated on food quality and purity, according to experts.

Specific food fads keep periodically emerging based on sketchy claims of health benefits. Very recently I heard of something called ‘kombucha’ that is being touted even though health experts advise caution.

Proponents claim kombucha tea helps prevent and manage serious health conditions, from blood pressure to cancer. These claims are not backed by science.

In short, there isn’t enough evidence that kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. At the same time, several cases of harm have been reported. Therefore, the prudent approach is to avoid kombucha tea until more definitive information is available.

Once again, this temptation to overdo things is largely a ‘first world’ phenomenon, like the ‘raw water’ fad. It seems like when something is freely available, as is food and water in the US, some people try to make it enormously threatening and complicated so that they can market niche products of dubious value that they claim will protect you from non-existent dangers of ordinary foods. The many millions of people who suffer from food insecurity around the world do not have the luxury to indulge in such things.

When it comes to diet, I have a simple rule that is basically similar to what food writer Michael Pollan has distilled into seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Only the ‘eat food’ part needs explanation and that is that he defines ‘food’ as just the things that are cooked fresh using basic ingredients, preferably by those who are eating it, not the highly processed, pre-packaged products that are thrust upon us, that are stuffed with all manner of preservatives, salt, sugar, fillers, dyes, and so on so that they have a strong flavor and long shelf-life.

So I don’t really pay much attention to news reports about the latest ‘miracle food’. I simply eat moderate amounts of a balanced diet that is mostly home-cooked and only occasionally indulge in processed foods.


  1. garnetstar says

    I think that an American being able to live wholly on nothing but highly processed, pre-packaged “food products” stuffed with all manner of preservatives, salt, sugar, fillers, dyes, is the root of the orthorexia. So much that is available to eat *isn’t* food, and you can wreck your health and your microbiome and bring on diabetes and obesity just by not paying attention and innocently living on what is said to be food. It predisposes one to think that only hypervigilance about food (and water) “purity” can protect you.

  2. says

    Toilets have a greater impact on the body and waste (i.e. squatting versus sitting) than what they’re on about.

    South Koreans won’t walk around and eat (they’ll even stand beside the street vendors selling food while they eat) because they see food as an occasion, a throwback to when the country was poor. But calling it “unhealthy to eat while moving”? Ask hikers and mountaineers or competitors in marathons, triathlons and the Tour de France how they feel about food on the go.

    The less processed food, the better, though I do eat a lot of frozen vegetables. Most of my cooking is in the oven (heat only, unprocessed meat and vegetables) partly because I’m lazy and partly because it’s not the worst food to eat.

  3. Matt G says

    So much of our health is out of our control, and some have the need to create the illusion of control by obsessing about diet, supplements, etc. So much magical thinking, and of course this makes them vulnerable to snake oil salesmen/women.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Food fetishism = oral fixations + obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    I have long (& rather morbidly) considered it regrettable that Vienna did not suffer serious food shortages during World War I.

    Not that I have anything against the Viennese, but if that had happened, then Sigmund Freud would probably have devoted some verbose thought to the emotional complexes attached to eating. While he would almost certainly have gotten it all wrong, as was his wont, that would have put the subject on the intellectual table in a way it has yet to experience,. The follow-up/backlash to Freud’s musings would, as with his ponderings on the subconscious, sexuality, etc, have led to useful insights on a major aspect of human irrationality that currently sees more exploitation than exploration.

    Yes, I know I’m weird, thank you very much.

  5. garnetstar says

    It’s revealing that this fad is called “clean eating”, as opposed to, say, “healthy eating”. It shows a little too much concern about food not being the opposite, which is, I suppose, “dirty”. Demonizes a lot of food (as well as “food products”) that are evil to eat at all, not that they should be eaten and enjoyed in moderation.

  6. anat says

    My husband and I like commercially-brewed kombucha, and it is one way to add fermented foods to one’s diet. (For advantages of those see https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34256014/ ). On the advice of a friend of Russian origin (home-brewing of kombucha is very common there) we tried home-brewing once, but it got moldy so we did not repeat the experiment.

  7. Kimpatsu5000 says

    FYI, “kombucha” (昆布茶) is Japanese for “kelp tea”, so saying “kombucha tea” is tautological. I just thought you’d want to know.

  8. Silentbob says

    Only the “eat food” part needs explanation and that is that he defines “food” as just the things that are cooked fresh using basic ingredients, preferably by those who are eating it, not the highly processed, pre-packaged products that are thrust upon us, that are stuffed with all manner of preservatives, salt, sugar, fillers, dyes, and so on so that they have a strong flavor and long shelf-life.

    So definitely not tofu then. I admit I’m “trolling” to some extent as tofu has a reputation as a “healthy” food. But when I look up tofu it says,

    a food prepared by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks of varying softness

    What then is soy milk?

    a plant-based drink produced by soaking and grinding soybeans, boiling the mixture, and filtering out remaining particulates

    What then does it mean to coagulate?

    coagulation can be caused by adding rennet or any edible acidic substance such as lemon juice or vinegar, and then allowing it to coagulate. The increased acidity causes the milk proteins (casein) to tangle into solid masses, or curds

    So putting it all together, tofu is when we soak and grind soy beans, boil, filter out particulates, add “any edible acidic substance” to coagulate, and “press into solid white blocks”.

    The point being it’s hard to conceive of a more “highly processed” food.

    I caution against the “appeal to nature” fallacy in that there is nothing inherently wrong with “preservatives” (you like rotting food?), salt, sugar, or even “fillers, dyes”. I may be mistaken, but I think Indian (and probably Sri Lankan?) cuisine was not adverse to using ingredients purely for colour.

    I think it’s nutrition (and taste) that matters, not how “fresh” or “basic” it is.

  9. anat says

    Kimpatsu5000, while that is the literal translation of kombucha, there is no kelp in kombucha, it is fermented tea, with the optional addition of fruit or herbal extracts for flavor.

  10. anat says

    Silentbob @8: Yes, there are criticisms of the NOVA food classification system (for definitions and examples see: https://regulatory.mxns.com/en/ultra-processed-foods-nova-classification and https://educhange.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/NOVA-Classification-Reference-Sheet.pdf). Some foods defy the simplistic classification. Yet I think tofu would still fall in class 3 foods, as it can be made at home from a combination of class 1 and 2 ingredients.

    It’s the ultra-processed foods that are a problem, as has been shown by Kevin Hall: Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: An inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. It’s a very interesting paper: They recruited 20 weight-stable adults (all overweight, as far as I can see) and kept them in a hospital metabolic ward for 4 weeks. They fed them a diet of ultra-processed foods for 2 weeks and one of minimally processed foods for 2 weeks (the order of the diets was randomized). The 2 diets were designed such that meals had the same caloric density, macronutrient composition, including sugar and fiber (you can find examples in the supplementary materials, note that in order to supply enough fiber in the ultra-processed diet they dissolved fiber in the drinks), as well as sodium and omega-3 content. At mealtime they were presented with a huge excess of food for 60 minutes and were instructed to eat as much or as little as desired. (The diets did differ in some parameters such as ratio of saturated/unsaturated fat, soluble/insoluble fiber, there’s a limit to how well everything could be matched). Additionally, during the daytime they had access to snacks matching the diet type (packaged snacks for ultra-processed diet, fruit and nuts for minimally-processed diet) and bottled water.

    The main outcome was that on the ultra-processed diet the subjects gained 0.9 kg in 2 weeks while on the minimally-processed diet they lost 0.9 kg in 2 weeks, regardless of the order of the diets. There’s a lot of detail in the paper about all the metabolic differences that were measured. Interestingly to me, the difference in energy intake between the diets was during the meals rather than the snacks, and while the subjects reported equal fullness and satisfaction on the 2 diets they ate slower on the minimally-processed diet.

    So degree of processing does become important, and it seems to influence how much people eat until they feel sated. The researchers are now recruiting subjects for a follow up study comparing 4 different types of ultra-processed food diets varying in how much of the energy comes from beverage vs non-beverage sources and by how much of the food is hyper-palatable.

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